Did Arizona Shooting Suspect Have Occult Shrine or Left Over Halloween Decor?

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today Faith and Reason

The New York Daily Newsis showing an image of what they call an occult shrine in Jared Loughner’s back yard: A terra-cotta plant pot holding a replica of a skull sits, surrounded by shriveled oranges, on a brick ledge with three tall, dirty glass cannisters holding candles beside it.

Signs of the occult, says their story on Loughner, the alleged gunman who killed six people and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nine others.

This evaluation is pegged to unnamed “experts.” I’ve hunting now for word of cults that call for messy backyard altars but in the mean time, here’s what a pagan-witch-occultist says.

Star Foster, who blogs on the Pagan pages for a religion/spirituality web site Patheos, will have none of this devil-made-me-do-it speculation. First. she points out some obvious things about the so-called shrine” that looks like any odd pile of junk in an unkempt backyard. Foster muses:

Does a bag of potting soil, a pot of rotten oranges, a fake skull (looks like the plastic kind they sell at Halloween) and some old candles make a shrine?

Not in her book. She goes on to note:

Well, the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) are featured in occult ceremonies, but then occult ceremonies are mindful things. The nook is dirty and unkempt. The candles are shoved to one side, there’s debris and dirt clinging to items (indicating they haven’t been used or handled recently or regularly), and there are utilitarian items like plastic pots and potting soil on the “shrine”. The so-called “ceremonial” candles are plain white novenas that they sell at the dollar store and are used for both religious and utilitarian purposes. I’ve both used them on my altar and as emergency lighting in bad weather. The skull and oranges likely have mundane origins as well. It appears to me that someone set a bowl of oranges with decorative skull here from Halloween and forgot about it, just like they set the utilitarian white candles here and potting soil and never gave them a second thought. I don’t see a shrine. I see the remnants of summer forgotten in deep winter, like you might see in any backyard.

No, maybe not, says Professor of Anthropology William Stuart at the University of Maryland. Foster maybe too dismissive of the possiblity that for Loughner, these symbols could have held meaning far beyond what may be obvious to others.

These kinds of things done by a loaner mashing up images anywhere from The Blair Witch Project to Saturday morning cartoons “could have profound meaning to an individual even if they are religious delusions,” says Stuart.

Still, I’m struck by Foster’s conclusion:

As a Witch, as a Pagan and as an occultist, I see nothing of the occult in this. Only sadness. Mainly sadness because we are so prone to try to paint this murderer in shades of “the other” so we don’t have to contemplate any way he might be similar to us.

Now, that IS a chilling thought. Do we try to peg people who commit evil acts — like opening fire on a cluster of citizens in front of a Tucson Safeway — as crazy, or as belonging to whatever political party or ideology we personally reject? Is this a reflexive way to distance ourselves from madness. That person is no one like me?

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